New Writing By E.R. Murray on Tiny Essays

I’m really excited about having this new non-fiction piece: I Think of Grief as a Dying Star published over on Tiny Essays.

Since the site came to my attention (thanks to awesome writerly human, Claire Hennessy) I’ve been really enjoying the bite-sized non-fiction pieces. So much so, that I specifically began this piece with the website in mind, which is something I rarely do.

I Think of Grief as a Dying Star is a mini essay that I wrote (from idea to multiple drafts to finished piece) while on residency at Mauser Eco House in Costa Rica.

I like to try and complete one fresh piece of work while on a residency, that reminds me specifically of that time and space. I’d been itching to write about grief for a while, and there was something about the jungle sounds at night and the wide, dark Costa Rican skies that set this piece in motion.

I hope you like the piece and show Tiny Essays lots of support! And if you want to see more photos of my time at Mauser Eco House, you can check out my Instagram page.

Mental Health, Mental Wellness

It’s not just whether the glass is half full or half empty

When people hear that I now live rurally, they often have a misinformed vision of people taking it easy, watching the waves lap upon the shore, having a generally easy time of it. The truth is that yes, it is a beautiful place – and the pace is certainly slower – but like everywhere else in the world, people work hard and suffer from the same disillusionments, despairs and misfortunes as their peers.

Mental health is something that I’ve always had an interest in because it permeates every area of society. I have witnessed several tragedies resulting from mental health issues and I know that I’m not alone. Whether it is a relation, a friend, a partner, or ourselves, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been affected by mental health problems in some way. But what interests me is how, despite the scope of the symptoms, the general attitude towards mental health problems remains closeted, archaic, and the treatment given is always the same.

At the beginning of this month, I was blogging for the Writers Week literary festival in Listowel. This meant I got to attend plenty of amazing literary events as well as interview some of the writers. One of the events was a talk by Dr Terry Lynch; an avid researcher, practitioner and campaigner for mental health in Ireland who is openly discussing his attitudes to mental health and suggesting where positive changes need to be made. I thought it was an important event worth sharing.

Opening the talk in an open, honest address, Dr Terry Lynch explained, “Mental health is my passion; I could speak about it for hours. I’m an unusual voice in Ireland amongst the medical profession. If I was to sum up my position in mental health, I’d say that a major overhaul is needed from the current psychiatric model. There are many people who agree with me, and they do speak up, but not as much.”

So what does Dr Lynch believe in terms of mental health and mental wellness?

From Dr Terry Lynch’s Book, Selfhood

“Mental health is about emotional distress. Communities need to take back, to reclaim and embrace emotional and mental health and the many people who experience it.”

“So-called primitive cultures handle mental health a lot differently and their recovery rates of, e.g. schizophrenia, are much higher. I wondered why – if science is the answer – are we not getting results? My conclusion is that science is not the answer; humanity is the answer.”

So if humanity is the answer, how do we, as a community, embrace the idea that we can change attitudes towards mental health?

“We now have access to so much information; we can access media and create our open media; political, financial, religious scandals have come to the surface because of the enormous access to media.

“Mental health stands out as one area where the public stays misinformed. I see part of my role as a writer and speaker is to set this right. I believe in plain English; and to understand something well we should be able to explain it in plain English. We have a duty to explain it in plain English. We have to accurately define mental health.”

To assist the audience’s understanding, Dr Lynch discussed several common mental health misconceptions.

  • It’s a mental problem – Dr Lynch disagrees. It is an emotional issues
  • Mental health issues are lifelong – but many people have recovered.
  • Mental illnesses are portrayed as  brain disorders which are either a neuro-biological disorder or caused by imbalances in brain chemicals such as serotonin – Dr. Lynch said that this has not been established to be the case, and that doctors’ understanding of the brain is exaggerated.
  • Psychiatry is the medical profession that most understands the brain – but that’s actually neurology and neurosurgery
  • Mental health problems derive from a chemical imbalance – serotonin is used in everyday language but is it understood?
  • It’s a genetic illness
  • How dare anyone question the science?

Dr Terry Lynch went on to counter these with some mental health truths, including:In public interest, science must be questioned.

  • There are no known chemical imbalances in the brain that account or cause mental illness. Have never been confirmed by chemical or laboratory tests.
  • In everyday work with people, psychiatrists and GPs never investigate the brain, except to exclude non-psychiatric illness. There are no confirmatory tests. Think of the difference in activity to other wards.
  • There is no medication that can replace a chemical imbalance.
  • The biological answers are what the medical profession have been focusing on for last 100 years; that’s the hook that keeps us striving to prove it, following the standard viewpoint. But in fact, it’s far from proven. The research undertaken is not objective.
  • Medication is medicating human distress and is focusing on maintenance rather than recovery.
  • The most common symptom is loss of self: that’s where the drive for the book Selfhood came from.
  • There are more than 36 components of selfhood that need to be taken into consideration.

Referencing the familiar saying of putting ‘the horse before the cart’, Dr Lynch explained how in the psychiatric profession, “it is traditional to decide the conclusion before gathering the evidence.”

Using examples from mental health sufferers, he explained, “this is not a mental issue but is about emotional distress; it comes in various forms and needs to be addressed in various ways.” A community-based approach is what he believes will help the situation; a change in understanding, a collective shift in mindset regarding “mental wellness and a focus on recovery, rather than maintenance”.

Dr Terry Lynch went on to discuss various mental health diagnoses such as bipolar and schizophrenia. He also addressed attitudes towards suicide, pointing out that because suicide is such a taboo subject in society, it leaves people feeling suicidal ostracised with nowhere to turn. He also focused on ways in which people can recover, suggesting alternative empathetic and less clinical approaches embracing person-centred coping strategies, humane support and a communal change in belief systems.

The session ended with an address from one of Dr Terry’s patients, thanking him for his assistance over the last four years; a fitting end to a very enlightening and forward-thinking event.

If you’re interested and would like to read more, Dr Terry Lynch kindly completed an amazingly informative interview before the festival. To learn more about his views, research and approach, click on the following links:

Dr Terry Lynch Interview Part 1

Dr Terry Lynch Interview Part 2

Treasure Maps and Trowels: X Marks the Spot

Twenty-Fifth of the Fifth, 2010. Our iconic day.

It went something like this… Clamber into the punt, whizz around West Cork’s beautiful Goat Island and whistle for the goats, get up close to some wild seals, watch the gannets dive, circle Long Island and stop to catch a mackerel. Head to Long Island pier, visit one of the Islanders for tea and get given a cabbage three times the size of my head. Carry the cabbage the length of the island to Westerland strand, rescue some stranded jellyfish and barbecue the mackerel. The End.

Long Island Pier

Or so we thought…

The next day, I headed back to Dublin and my friend Mick (now my husband) stayed in West Cork. Unknown to us, that legendary day was just the beginning and Long Island was about to become more special to us than we’d ever hoped.

In the early 1900’s, Long Island had a population of at least two hundred. But, like the corn crake, the numbers dwindled, and by the 1980’s, the population had depleted to about thirty. Mick remembers the ferry carting several children across Long Island Sound every morning for school. He talks of the days when the cattle were swum across to the mainland for market, of the time the island got its first donkey.

Those days are long gone; now there are no children on the island, the cattle don’t swim, and only three people inhabit the island year-round. But like the corn crake, the spirit of the island prevails through stories old and new.

The lady on the island that we visit is a legend; in her eightieth year, she still carries hay bales and digs up cabbages three times the size of your head, like the one she gave me during our visit. It’s characters like her – and my husband – that maintain the island’s spirit. Stories about a place keep it alive; and hopefully our own story will add to that.

Long Island Sound

One year after our first boat trip together on 25th May 2010, we decided to recreate our symbolic day, but the terrible weather and wild seas prevented any boat trips until June 11th.

As I got ready to go, Mick turned up with a huge bag, stuffed to the brim with goodness knows what and with several sticks poking out of the top. He never ceases to amaze me so I expected an ad-hoc camping trip or a quickly assembled home-made barbecue – what I wasn’t expecting was for us to reach a certain spot on the island, and for him to ditch me…

“Wait here and I’ll come back in a few minutes,” he said.

Luckily, being a writer, I always have a notebook to hand; and once I start concentrating, I don’t notice the time. Which was a good job seeing as he didn’t return for an hour and a half! Reappearing he handed me a rusty trowel (of all things) and pointed to Westerland Strand.

“Go on, get digging!”

That’s when I noticed huge arrows drawn on the sand. Clambering over rocks and around driftwood, I found a bottle sticking out of some pebbles. In it, was a hand-drawn treasure map which I began to follow. I’m terrible with directions so he stayed close behind, calling “you’re going the wrong way” at optimum times. After a while, I found a stick poking out of the sand and – as the map directed – started digging. Buried twelve inches down was a bottle containing a letter; the label said: ‘Don’t read me yet’.

Over the course of the next hour, I found two more sticks leading to two more bottles. After the third bottle was retrieved, I was finally allowed to sit and read the beautifully written letter inside the first bottle (I later found out that it had taken a month to write). Like any perfect love letter, it said many touching things about me, our relationship and our trips to Long Island. It finished with: P.S. One more thing… X marks the spot!

Long Island

Having no navigational ability, and my guide having disappeared from view, it took a while for me to locate the giant X, realising as I did that that was what the sticks poking out of the bag were for!

As for the treasure hunt, I was still none the wiser. You see, this man is a rogue and I always fall for his tricks. I was sure he had me digging for a potato!  But it was a good game so I played along.

After another ten minutes of digging with a rusty trowel, without any potatoes in sight, I needed some help.

“I can’t find anything,” I called out, hoping the words would reach.

“Dig deeper,” came the reply from behind a boulder.

Wondering why my partner was cowering behind a giant rock, I continued my quest. Still no potato.

“I can’t find it.”

Wedding clothes & jacaranda tree

Mick’s head peeped out for an instant, then disappeared again:“Dig wider.”

Almost half a metre down, my face red from the effort, I found a small box. Inside, it held some tiny shells and a note: ‘Will you marry me?’

As I ran to my future husband, my face collided with a fistful of roots, covered in sand. As he’d heard me running over, he’d reached out and grabbed a bunch of sea pinks. Wrestling sand out of my contact lenses, he apologised;

“I forgot to get flowers! I can’t believe I didn’t make the effort.”

The effort was certainly above and beyond anything I could have ever expected. We got married under a jacaranda tree in Australia six months later. No sand, no trowels; but I did push him around in a wheelbarrow.

The rest is history. Long Island history.

(This autobiographical story was originally posted on Writing.ie in Monday Miscellany)